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E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
November 2001

Put Your Customers' Questions To Work


Since the beginning of time, people have engaged in conversation through questions and answers. This form of communication has naturally transitioned into the way customers expect to interact with corporations. Although companies have invested millions of dollars to dynamically interact with customers via Web-based navigation, e-mail, toll-free numbers, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and chat, these organizations have lacked the tools, processes and discipline to leverage the knowledge gained from these applications to listen, understand and respond to customers' needs.

In an attempt to improve self-service and automate contact centers through customer relationship management (CRM) applications, most companies have viewed the question and answer process as simply a function of sales (increase revenue) or customer support (lower costs). As companies have been investing money in CRM, many have overlooked the value that can be derived from analyzing the incoming question stream to gain actionable insight that can improve overall business practices.

Companies regularly pay research firms tens of thousands of dollars to conduct focus groups and surveys in order to capture customer data such as who the customers are, what they want, how they make decisions and even how they feel about a particular product or service. Yet, few companies recognize that they are already sitting on a treasure trove of customer data that enter the company every day through existing self-service systems. When properly processed, customer data captured through self-service can turn into a round-the-clock user focus group that can help ensure customer loyalty, improve sales and increase retention.

Investing in the right customer interaction technology is the first step, but not every point of interaction lends itself to easy and effective analysis. For instance, if you want to analyze call center transcripts, you'll find yourself struggling to aggregate the data into groups and trends without going through mountains of paperwork. There are three questions you can consider to ensure that you are getting the most out of your customer interactions:

  1. 'Am I capturing the questions being asked by my customers?'
  2. 'Am I gaining actionable knowledge from interacting with my customers?'
  3. 'Do I have an automated approach for processing the data gathered in these interactions?'

If you answered 'no' to any of the above questions, you're not using your customers' questions to their full potential. Customers are your organization's biggest asset and listening to them pays off with increased customer satisfaction and loyalty and decreased support costs. Molding every aspect of your business around customer needs and input can lead to the competitive advantage you've been looking for in today's tough economy. To fully take advantage of customer questions, companies must:

  • Capture and aggregate incoming questions,
  • Analyze customer data,
  • Share customer data across the organization,
  • Change business processes and products, and
  • Proactively measure and solicit feedback.

Capture And Aggregate Incoming Questions
The best place to analyze customers' queries is by capturing them via question-answering technologies such as e-mail, phone calls to support centers, voice over IP (VoIP) and/or chat sessions. Once a business discovers the value of its customers' questions, the next step is to determine strategic objectives and select which technology can help accomplish those objectives. Ask each of your customer-facing application providers if they have an automated solution to capture and provide detailed reports about customers' questions. An automated analytics solution is necessary because no one has time to generate or read hundreds of reports. If your provider is not automated, there are a handful of companies that offer automated reporting and analysis tools for aggregating information related to customer interactions. This will allow the creation of high-level summaries that can identify if a business is responding to customers' most important demands. Work with executive management and your technology providers to identify the types of reports in which you are interested. It's also important to evaluate how well analytic and reporting products can integrate with other customer-facing technology components. Customer analytic tools are less effective if they can't be integrated into existing operational and collaborative CRM component investments.

Analyze Customer Data
Taking a customer's question seriously can be an important competitive advantage. In a recent survey, Jupiter MediaMetrix found that 70 percent of experienced Web users would leave a site if they could not find the information they need. Clearly, your company wants to answer a customer's question, but it's equally important to analyze the questions to help guide product and service offerings, marketing programs and sales efforts with customer-driven information. When a company starts to understand the nature of customers' questions, it gains a deeper insight into the their needs, helping create new opportunities and establish long-term relationships. Work with your team to identify the opportunities within Web navigation, e-mail, call center, VoIP and chat technology where you can leverage knowledge gained from your customers' questions. Designate a data analysis team that can identify key areas where the company can gain a deeper understanding of customers' behavior, including knowledge about their concerns, interests and motivations. Areas for analysis should focus on support, service and pre- and post-sales. Look for qualitative and quantitative information about customers' buying habits, the level of technical support they expect and the number of repeat support questions coming into the contact center. Look for trends, content holes, performance metrics, FAQs, timely questions surrounding a crisis or questions following recent marketing and advertising campaigns.

Share Customer Data Across The Organization
Providing the type of service that encourages your customers to come back and do business is essential to your company. While capturing questions is often the easy part, the information derived from the questions is useless if it remains disorganized or scattered over the enterprise. Knowledge gained from customer questions must be shared across appropriate departments and divisions so the right changes can be made to product, sales, marketing and business strategies. In addition to needing an automated solution to capture and aggregate incoming questions, it's imperative to have an automated component to generating reports that can be shared across the organization. Sharing data becomes easier if your systems can be easily integrated or can leverage existing investments such as content management systems.

Contact centers and Web sites are two large investments that can leverage customer knowledge across departments to improve efficiencies. CSRs (customer service representatives) often answer time-consuming questions that can easily be answered on a Web site. CSRs should identify these types of questions, report them to the Web development team or integrate with content management systems applications to allow customers to help themselves through self-service via the Web. The department responsible for Web navigation technology can also study reports and monitor questions asked via natural language to ensure that CSRs are kept up to speed on support methods, products and processes. This can be used as an effective way to train CSRs to deliver standard responses based on real customer interactions

Sharing information can get very complex, particularly if ownership and collaboration processes are not well defined. Business intelligence and information distribution applications can help maximize the use of this vital information by making customer data easily accessible in real-time via an Extranet or Intranet. E-mail can also be an effective tool for information sharing if it is well integrated into a cohesive process.

Change Business Processes And Products
The cost of gaining a new customer can be 7 to 10 times higher than retaining an existing satisfied customer, so it's extremely important to fine-tune business strategies to retain customers and beat competitors. Armed with the information derived from listening to your customers' questions, take the necessary steps to change your business processes. You may be surprised by the efficiencies gained as you optimize existing technology and service investments. Look for areas that can help improve your bottom line, like recognizing the demand for a new high-margin service. Use the questions to proactively monitor a demand for a new product that can expand your market share and make the necessary adjustments to drive the business opportunity. Evaluate customer data to forecast your hottest selling item during the December holidays and make sure you have the inventory throughout the holiday season.

If a company receives consistent customer communication via a toll-free support telephone number inquiring about the warranty on a new purchase, learn from the interaction and update your Web site content to address the question for other customers. In this situation, reviewing your customers' questions and developing content to effectively provide an answer via the Web through self-service could save $10 per e-mail interaction. As a next step to further changing your business process, analyze additional customer questions surrounding warranty inquiries and determine if there is an opportunity to seamlessly escalate the customer to other communications channels (possibly to upsell an extended warranty).

In addition, if you are receiving hundreds of support questions about a new product that just shipped, touch base with product development to proactively identify and solve a potential problem. Marketing can also gain tremendous knowledge surrounding questions about a new advertising campaign. As a result of sharing information and making changes to your business, you can effectively enhance sales and marketing efforts while reducing support costs.

Proactively Ask For Feedback
Another way to put your customers' questions to work is to solicit feedback immediately following their question-and-answer session. For example, you could consider implementing a pop-up screen that is generated after a customer has asked a question via the Web. This could include asking a simple question like 'Was your question answered?' or 'Was this interaction helpful?' If the customer did not receive an answer to his or her question, consider escalating the customer to other communication channels. This will allow you to satisfy the customer, while also gathering intelligence to answer the next customer who poses the same question. In addition, if a customer did not find an answer, consider asking him or her questions that will help enhance your business. Find out what prompted the customer to send an e-mail versus picking up the phone or versus searching for the answer on your Web site. If the customer started on your Web site and could not find the answer, determine why and make the necessary adjustments to promote self-service. Being proactive as opposed to reactive will allow you to assess the real impact of your customer interaction efforts. This will help prioritize future projects and improve customer relations.

Don't let your customers' voices go unheard. Any company that uses a Web site or a contact center to satisfy customer queries can easily learn from its customers' questions. Take advantage of this valuable method of interaction and learn from each question to make the necessary adjustments to your business. Listening to customers is not merely about discovering their buying patterns and getting them to make big purchases; it's about building long-term relationships and loyalty. In this economy, companies will beat the competition if they are able to respond quickly to changing customer demands. Putting your customers' questions to work will not only give you the actionable insight to improve customer retention, increase sales, deliver better products and improve overall product and marketing efforts, it will also allow you to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Claudio Pinkus is president of Jeeves Solutions, a division of Ask Jeeves, Inc.

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